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Action plans sparse at many of Philadelphia's most dangerous schools

A group of girls grab a classmate and push her and pummel her until she falls to the floor, covering her face with her arms in a vain effort to protect herself.

An Edison High School student assaults another student lying on a hall floor in a frame captured from a cellphone video.
An Edison High School student assaults another student lying on a hall floor in a frame captured from a cellphone video.Read more

A group of girls grab a classmate and push her and pummel her until she falls to the floor, covering her face with her arms in a vain effort to protect herself.

As she struggles to stand up, another girl in a black leather jacket and gray hoodie kicks the fallen victim in the head, causing her neck to snap forward.

The Jan. 4 attack in an Edison High School hallway - captured by a witness' cellphone camera and widely seen on the Internet - is graphic evidence of the explosive violence that all too often engulfs Philadelphia public schools, traumatizing students and teachers and stifling learning.

In a city where even kindergartners commit assaults, as documented in the recent Inquirer series "Assault on Learning," Edison, a North Philadelphia school with 1,700 students, stands out as one of the district's 19 "persistently dangerous" schools.

That designation - pinned on a school Edison's size after 20 student arrests for violent acts such as aggravated assault - is supposed to trigger a host of rules and requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind law and state regulations, including that the school devise an action plan to enhance safety.

But an Inquirer review of two years of plans detected no particular urgency on the part of city schools to devise effective plans - even though Philadelphia has more such schools than any city in the country and Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman has declared the situation an "emergency."

While some of the plans are detailed and thoughtful, the majority are sparse, with Edison's being a prime example. Its text consists largely of three lines:

Goal 1: Installation of cameras.

Goal 2: Improve school climate.

Goal 3: Student mentoring/peer mediation.

Moreover, the state Department of Education, which is supposed to monitor the plans, has traditionally had "a hands-off policy toward the Philadelphia School District," said Jack Stollsteimer, the former state-appointed watchdog of school safety in Philadelphia. "They were allowed to get away with anything."

Because the district is state-run, the Education Department had a conflict of interest in monitoring it, Stollsteimer contended.

State officials said that the district had largely improved, and that the plans were more about making small changes rather than turning a school around overnight.

Tim Eller, the Education Department spokesman, said the state "will continue to work with the School District to ensure its plans are appropriate to aid in improving the safety of students."

Stringent state

On paper, Pennsylvania is one of the most stringent states in its interpretation of the No Child Left Behind mandate, which lets each state define what constitutes a persistently dangerous school.

Other major cities with well-documented problems of violence, such as Los Angeles, have no schools on the persistently dangerous list, and only 44 are on the national list this year. Philadelphia accounts for 43 percent of them.

In Pennsylvania, aggravated assaults, aggravated sexual assaults, robberies, and weapon possessions that result in an arrest count toward the designation. Schools are allowed a certain number of incidents each year, based on their enrollment, before being kicked into the dangerous category.

In another quirk of the law's application, Philadelphia schools on the list - many in largely poor, high-crime neighborhoods - have a hard time breaking free because the size of their enrollment increases the probability that 20 students will be arrested for violent acts in a year. No other Pennsylvania schools are classified as persistently dangerous.

Ackerman has pledged to remove all city schools from the list within two years, a feat not accomplished since the list started in 2003. Edison has been listed the last four years. A few schools have remained on the list since its inception.

For students, there can be real consequences if their schools are on the list. They have to be offered the opportunity to transfer to another public school in the district, including a charter school.

For administrators, there has been another apparent response to Ackerman's directive. The Inquirer has documented instances in which incidents resulting in hospitalization for serious injuries were coded not as aggravated assaults, which would result in arrest and count against the 20 total, but as disorderly conduct or fights, which would not.

Another consequence is that the plans may get short shrift from Philadelphia school administrators who view them as a charade to appease politicians.

"They're thin because people are filling out and documenting what they need to please the district and the government," said Ed Monastra, a retired Olney High School principal who has since filled in as principal at several other district schools.

Stollsteimer agreed that Philadelphia administrators "had to send in the reports to comply with the law, but they knew that there was nobody who was going to actually analyze the reports, nor would there be any consequences if the reports were insufficient."

The School District does not keep good track of the plans, which must be filed annually as long as a school is on the list.

In fulfilling an Inquirer Right-to-Know Law request for the plans, the district initially failed to provide them for five of the 19 schools, although it supplied midyear update reports for two of those schools. Questioned by The Inquirer about the absence of the plans, the district several days later produced the missing reports.

Plans differ

The plans vary widely.

Some focus on attendance. Others on the dress code.

Strawberry Mansion High School, which recorded nearly 12 violent incidents per 100 students last year, said it provided extra support to teachers who had "a history of involvement in assaults."

Fels High School, where more than seven of every 100 students experience a violent incident, lists the school's goal as reducing the number of violent incidents 10 percent.

"Through a schoolwide system we will reduce the numbers of students running randomly in packs throughout the building," the plan says, without describing what the system is.

Some plans would surely have earned a failing grade if students had turned them in.

In its 2009 plan, administrators at Frankford High misspelled the school as "Frankfort" and spelled academic two different ways in the same paragraph.

Here is the school's surprisingly brief plan to eliminate tardiness:

Have posters and policy printed up and posted

Inform staff, parents and students of policy and procedure

Aquire [sic] shirts for sell

Train staff on

Edison, Strawberry Mansion, Fels, and Frankford are all among the city's 32 neighborhood high schools, where familiar urban ills often spill into schools. In the "Assault on Learning" series, The Inquirer reported that the violence rate spiked 17 percent at these schools in the five years ending with the 2009-10 school year.

The average violence rate at the schools was 5.1 incidents per 100 students. Edison surpassed that with a rate of 6.1, making it one of the district's most violent schools; its rate has increased in each of the last four years.

Edison's sprawling brick building with cascading rooftops is in the 100 block of West Luzerne Street, across from a cemetery. The school is only about a block north of Roberto Clemente Middle School, which feeds into Edison.

During the 2009-10 school year, Clemente ranked No. 1 in the rate of violence among the city's middle schools, with 8.4 violent incidents per 100 students.

Clemente's plan said it would ensure the safety of students as they moved from the lunchroom back to class: "Prepare a gauntlet of staff member [sic] to ferry students along hallways."

Since September, Clemente has been a Promise Academy, an overhauled district school with extra resources and a longer school day and year.

District officials say the action plans have helped improve safety in the schools, but acknowledged they are striving for "more consistency" in preparing them.

"Every school's culture is different, so the plans won't be identical in nature, but we are working toward providing schools with proper guidance to meet their needs," said Shana Kemp, a district spokeswoman.

In addition, safety teams at the schools address issues as they arise, Kemp said.

The Inquirer called principals at all of the persistently dangerous schools, including the principal of Edison, Marilyn Perez. Most did not return calls. Those who did referred questions to the district's Office of Communications.

Monastra said, "Obviously, a good plan is essential for the staff and students to know what to do in emergency situations, but a good plan without a good administration is really ineffective."

Vare Middle School offered one of the most detailed plans, a seven-page report with goals and strategies for carrying them out. One of its goals, for example, was to reduce tardiness, student hall walkers, and the number of students who repeatedly get suspended.

Among its remedies were to reallocate funding to support three additional noontime aides, offer "de-escalation training" in how to deal with violence, order additional "walkies" for new staff, and refer hall walkers for more in-depth help.

Two critics

The district's plans - and the state Education Department's inadequate monitoring of them - have been criticized by the state's auditor general, as long ago as 2008, and by a safety consulting firm hired by the department last year to evaluate persistently dangerous schools.

In a 2008 audit of the state Education Department, Auditor General Jack Wagner's office found that state education officials did not bother reading the reports or verify whether schools had implemented them.

"We believe that there is still a problem with the Department of Education not properly monitoring to make sure the action plans correct the problems," Wagner said in an interview last week.

Safe Havens, a Georgia firm, said in a report obtained by The Inquirer that there was "no apparent substantive connection or consistency" in how schools designed the plans. While evaluating them, the firm sought a district "benchmark sample plan" to use as a guide, but was told none would be available, the report said.

The report contained recommendations for how the district might make the schools safer, including installing security cameras.

Ackerman did move to place security cameras in 20 schools - 16 on the persistently dangerous list - after being criticized for failing to rein in racially charged violence at South Philadelphia High School that pitted black students against Asians.

After putting cameras in South Philadelphia High under an emergency contract, Ackerman bumped aside a suburban contractor in favor of a minority firm to install the rest of the cameras on an emergency, no-bid contract worth $7.5 million. Her staff members awarded the work to IBS Communications of Mount Airy after Ackerman supplied them with the firm's business card.

While the suburban contractor would have completed the work by Nov. 30, IBS was given until June 30 to do the work.

The District Attorney's Office used the cellphone-camera video - not a school security tape - to successfully prosecute two girls in the Edison attack.

Ackerman defended the emergency bid, saying in a December interview, "If something had happened, we would have been in the papers for failing to act."

Abysmal achievement

In 2009-10, the most recent year for which data are available, Edison High recorded 117 violent incidents, including 80 assaults and 26 weapon possessions. Student achievement is abysmal.

Fewer than a quarter of the school's 11th graders scored advanced or proficient in math on the most recent state exam. Just more than a quarter did that well in reading.

The Jan. 4 attack was exceptional only because it was captured on video at the school.

It began about 12:30 p.m., when a group of students gathered on the second floor near a stairwell. Two female students reported that several girls had stopped them and had begun beating them, according to a School District police report obtained by The Inquirer. The video captured only one girl being attacked.

When the blows stopped, the female victim, wearing a red sweatshirt, leaped up and fled down a stairwell.

In court later, she was reticent, embarrassed that the attack had gone viral on the Internet, one official at the hearing recalled.

Freshmen Jessenia Rivera, 16, and Ironely Acosta, 15, were initially charged with simple assault. But after the District Attorney's Office viewed the violence on the video, the charge was bumped up to aggravated assault.

The reason behind the attack did not emerge in court. The victim testified only that she had been beaten.

However, Nydia Sánchez, the mother of Acosta, and Maria Rivera, the mother of Jessenia Rivera, said in separate interviews that the victim had hit their daughters first. That, they said, wasn't captured on video.

Both attackers were sent to juvenile detention.

But violence at the school continued.

One month to the day after the hallway attack, another large crowd gathered in the lunchroom at Edison.

When a school police officer tried to break up the group, a 15-year-old boy pushed the officer, nearly knocking him to the ground, according to a School District police report obtained by The Inquirer.